THANKS TO DANA WHITE, ARMED WITH SAVVY AND MORE THAN A LITTLE SALTY LANGUAGE, ULTIMATE FIGHTING CHAMPIONSHIP HAS OVERTAKEN BOXING AS THE BIGGEST FIGHT GAME AROUND. NOW IT'S COMING FOR THE OTHER PRO SPORTS LEAGUES.
It is a few hours before UFC 62 at Mandalay Bay - a fight that will pit Chuck Liddell, the biggest star in mixed martial arts and the reigning light heavyweight champion, against someone who everyone expects will get knocked out quickly, but in grand, wholly entertaining fashion. Liddell's opponent is a guy named Renato Sobral. People call him Babalu. I have no idea why, but, then, it doesn't really matter. All you need to know is that, despite Babalu's having won his last 10 fights, people are eagerly anticipating his destruction at the hands of the Mohawk-sporting, seemingly untouchable, and completely compelling Liddell.
There's a buzz in the casino that's a little louder, a little more palpable than normal; mixed among the flashing lights and ding-ding-ding of slot machines are breathless conversations anticipating tonight's fight and the impending carnage. In general, Las Vegas is insane. A good time, but insane. Now, shortly before various combatants pound each other with merciless kicks, unrepentant elbows, and vicious punches, the city is so charged that it's almost too much to handle, even for me. And I come here all the time.
So when I get a phone call from Ultimate Fighting Championship's public relations person, who tells me that my interview with Dana White has been moved to a different location and a different time, I'm not surprised. White, after all, is the president of UFC, a man in constant motion. I can only imagine that, right now, he's addressing myriad concerns: discussing commercials, signing off on production elements, handling fighters, running his staff ragged. This is what he does on a day-to-day basis. This is why he and UFC are so successful now, why the brand has a choke hold on the coveted 18-to-34 demographic. White is, if nothing else, an accomplished businessman who took UFC from nearly defunct - from nearly outlawed - to a sport that's all the rage.
When I first met White, about six months ago, he barely stopped to breathe. He was in meetings all day, and in between, he ran errands. I was totally convinced that he was undead, some sort of B-movie creature destined to roam the earth without need for sleep or food. Which is why it's so surprising that, when our rescheduled meeting happens, it's at a restaurant where, gasp, he actually stops to sit and, you know, eat. Physically, he looks the same - clean-shaven head and a stocky (solid, not fat) build that's hidden beneath a black polo, a long-sleeved white shirt, and faded jeans.
There's something different, though: He looks happy. Not that he didn't look happy before - the man presides over a multimillion-dollar corporation and takes home millions himself (I assume; the UFC is notoriously cryptic about its earnings, and so is White). What's not to be happy about? Except that the man deals with fighters, and he has a lot to oversee in terms of everyday operations, so the first time around, he seemed maybe not stressed but definitely preoccupied.
"Things are really good. Really good," the 37-year-old White assures me. He has a wide smile, and his eyes are all lit up. He looks a little like a kid who's been given unfettered access to the cookie jar. The only things missing are some chocolate smudges in the corners of his mouth. "Think about it. Sportswriters have tunnel vision. For a long time, they would cover only the major four sports: football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. We've done better numbers than basketball, baseball, hockey. It's not like it's cricket or polo. We said all along that we wanted to build this thing up to where we can't be denied or ignored. Well, guess what? It's hard to ignore us now."
Here's where I have to be honest. This is not the real Dana White. It's mostly Dana White - you're getting the charisma, the savvy. You're getting the hustle and an understanding of how he worked his way up from nothing into something; how he and his partners (Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, who own the Station Casinos conglomerate) built an absolute monster sports company. All of that is real. All of that is White. But it's not White the way he prefers to be seen, unvarnished and uncensored. If it were, the story would read something like this:
"[Bleep] [bleep], you know?" White might say. "And may I add, [bleep]."
And so on. That's how it would probably go.